Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume V/Prolegomena/His Teaching on the Holy Trinity

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Chapter IV.—His Teaching on the Holy Trinity.

To estimate the exact value of the work done by S. Gregory in the establishment of the doctrine of the Trinity and in the determination, so far as Eastern Christendom is concerned, of the terminology employed for the expression of that doctrine, is a task which can hardly be satisfactorily carried out. His teaching on the subject is so closely bound up with that of his brother, S. Basil of Cæsarea,—his “master,” to use his own phrase,—that the two can hardly be separated with any certainty. Where a disciple, carrying on the teaching he has himself received from another, with perhaps almost imperceptible variations of expression, has extended the influence of that teaching and strengthened its hold on the minds of men, it must always be a matter of some difficulty to discriminate accurately between the services which the two have rendered to their common cause, and to say how far the result attained is due to the earlier, how far to the later presentment of the doctrine. But the task of so discriminating between the work of S. Basil and that of S. Gregory is rendered yet more complicated by the uncertainty attaching to the authorship of particular treatises which have been claimed for both. If, for instance, we could with certainty assign to S. Gregory that treatise on the terms οὐσία and ὑπόστασις, which Dorner treats as one of the works by which he “contributed materially to fix the uncertain usage of the Church[1],” but which is found also among the works of S. Basil in the form of a letter addressed to S. Gregory himself, we should be able to estimate the nature and the extent of the influence of the Bishop of Nyssa much more definitely than we can possibly do while the authorship of this treatise remains uncertain. Nor does this document stand alone in this respect, although it is perhaps of more importance for the determination of such a question than any other of the disputed treatises. Thus in the absence of certainty as to the precise extent to which S. Gregory’s teaching was directly indebted to that of his brother, it seems impossible to say how far the “fixing of the uncertain usage of the Church” was due to either of them singly. That together they did contribute very largely to that result is beyond question: and it is perhaps superfluous to endeavour to separate their contributions, especially as there can be little doubt that S. Gregory at least conceived himself to be in agreement with S. Basil upon all important points, if not to be acting simply as the mouth-piece of his “master’s” teaching, and as the defender of the statements which his “master” had set forth against possible misconceptions of their meaning. Some points, indeed, there clearly were, in which S. Gregory’s presentment of the doctrine differs from that of S. Basil; but to these it may be better to revert at a later stage, after considering the more striking variation which their teaching displays from the language of the earlier Nicene school as represented by S. Athanasius.

The council held at Alexandria in the year 362, during the brief restoration of S. Athanasius, shows us at once the point of contrast and the substantial agreement between the Western school, with which S. Athanasius himself is in this matter to be reckoned, and the Eastern theologians to whom has been given the title of “Neo-Nicene.” The question at issue was one of language, not of belief; it turned upon the sense to be attached to the word ὑπόστασις. The Easterns, following a use of the term which may be traced perhaps to the influence of Origen, employed the word in the sense of the Latin “Persona,” and spoke of the Three Persons as τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις, whereas the Latins employed the term “hypostasis” as equivalent to “sub-stantia,” to express what the Greeks called οὐσία,—the one Godhead of the Three Persons. With the Latins agreed the older school of the orthodox Greek theologians, who applied to the Three Persons the phrase τρία πρόσωπα, speaking of the Godhead as μία ὑπόστασις. This phrase, in the eyes of the newer Nicene school, was suspected of Sabellianism[2], while on the other hand the Westerns were inclined to regard the Eastern phrase τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις as implying tritheism. The synodal letter sets forth to us the means by which the fact of substantial agreement between the two schools was brought to light, and the understanding arrived at, that while Arianism on the one hand and Sabellianism on the other were to be condemned, it was advisable to be content with the language of the Nicene formula, which employed neither the phrase μία ὑπόστασις nor the phrase τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις[3]. This resolution, prudent as it may have been for the purpose of bringing together those who were in real agreement, and of securing that the reconciled parties should, at a critical moment, present an unbroken front in the face of their common and still dangerous enemy, could hardly be long maintained. The expression τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις was one to which many of the orthodox, including those who had formerly belonged to the Semi-Arian section, had become accustomed: the Alexandrine synod, under the guidance of S. Athanasius, had acknowledged the phrase, as used by them, to be an orthodox one, and S. Basil, in his efforts to conciliate the Semi-Arian party, with which he had himself been closely connected through his namesake of Ancyra and through Eustathius of Sebastia, saw fit definitely to adopt it. While S. Athanasius, on the one hand, using the older terminology, says that ὑπόστασις is equivalent to οὐσία, and has no other meaning[4], S. Basil, on the other hand, goes so far as to say that the terms οὐσία and ὑπόστασις, even in the Nicene anathema, are not to be understood as equivalent[5]. The adoption of the new phrase, even after the explanations given at Alexandria, was found to require, in order to avoid misconstruction, a more precise definition of its meaning, and a formal defence of its orthodoxy. And herein consisted one principal service rendered by S. Basil and S. Gregory; while with more precise definition of the term ὑπόστασις there emerged, it may be, a more precise view of the relations of the Persons, and with the defence of the new phrase as expressive of the Trinity of Persons a more precise view of what is implied in the Unity of the Godhead.

The treatise, De Sancta Trinitate is one of those which are attributed by some to S. Basil, by others to S. Gregory: but for the purpose of showing the difficulties with which they had to deal, the question of its exact authorship is unimportant. [6]The most obvious objection alleged against their teaching was that which had troubled the Western theologians before the Alexandrine Council,—the objection that the acknowledgment of Three Persons implied a belief in Three Gods. To meet this, there was required a statement of the meaning of the term ὑπόστασις, and of the relation of ὀυσία to ὑπόστασις. Another objection, urged apparently by the same party as the former, was directed against the “novelty,” or inconsistency, of employing in the singular terms expressive of the Divine Nature such as “goodness” or “Godhead,” while asserting that the Godhead exists in plurality of Persons[7]. To meet this, it was required that the sense in which the Unity of the Godhead was maintained should be more plainly and clearly defined.

The position taken by S. Basil with regard to the terms οὐσία and ὑπόστασις is very concisely stated in his letter to Terentius[8]. He says that the Western theologians themselves acknowledge that a distinction does exist between the two terms: and he briefly sets forth his view of the nature of that distinction by saying that οὐσία is to ὑπόστασις as that which is common to individuals is to that in respect of which the individuals are naturally differentiated. He illustrates this statement by the remark that each individual man has his being τῷ κοίνῳ τῆς οὐσίας λόγῳ, while he is differentiated as an individual man in virtue of his own particular attributes. So in the Trinity that which constitutes the οὐσία (be it “goodness” or be it “Godhead”) is common, while the ὑπόστασις is marked by the Personal attribute of Fatherhood or Sonship or Sanctifying Power[9]. This position is also adopted and set forth in greater detail in the treatise, De Diff. Essen. et Hypost.[10], already referred to, where we find once more the illustration employed in the Epistle to Terentius. The Nature of the Father is beyond our comprehension; but whatever conception we are able to form of that Nature, we must consider it to be common also to the Son and to the Holy Spirit: so far as the οὐσία is concerned, whatever is predicated of any one of the Persons may be predicated equally of each of the Three Persons, just as the properties of man, quâ man, belong alike to Paul and Barnabas and Timothy: and as these individual men are differentiated by their own particular attributes, so each Person of the Trinity is distinguished by a certain attribute from the other two Persons. This way of putting the case naturally leads to the question, “If you say, as you do say, that Paul and Barnabas and Timothy are ‘three men,’ why do you not say that the Three Persons are ‘three Gods?’” Whether the question was presented in this shape to S. Basil we cannot with certainty decide: but we may gather from his language regarding the applicability of number to the Trinity what his answer would have been. He[11] says that in acknowledging One Father, One Son, One Holy Spirit, we do not enumerate them by computation, but assert the individuality, so to say, of each hypostasis—its distinctness from the others. He would probably have replied by saying that strictly speaking we ought to decline applying to the Deity, considered as Deity, any numerical idea at all, and that to enumerate the Persons as “three” is a necessity, possibly, imposed upon us by language, but that no conception of number is really applicable to the Divine Nature or to the Divine Persons, which transcend number[12]. To S. Gregory, however, the question did actually present itself as one demanding an answer, and his reply to it marks his departure from S. Basil’s position, though, if the treatise, De Diff. Essen. et Hyp. be S. Basil’s, S. Gregory was but following out and defending the view of his “master” as expressed in that treatise.

S. Gregory’s reply to the difficulty may be found in the letter, or short dissertation, addressed to Ablabius (Quod non sunt tres Dei), and in his treatise περὶ κοινῶν ἐννοίων. In the latter he lays it down that the term θεός is a term οὐσίας σημαντικόν, not a term προσώπων δηλωτικόν: the Godhead of the Father is not that in which He maintains His differentiation from the Son: the Son is not God because He is Son, but because His essential Nature is what it is. Accordingly, when we speak of “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost,” the word and is employed to conjoin the terms expressive of the Persons, not the repeated term which is expressive of the Essence, and which therefore, while applied to each of the Three Persons, yet cannot properly be employed in the plural. That in the case of three individual “men” the term expressive of essence is employed in the plural is due, he says, to the fact that in this case there are circumstances which excuse or constrain such a use of the term “man” while such circumstances do not affect the case of the Holy Trinity. The individuals included under the term “man” vary alike in number and in identity, and thus we are constrained to speak of “men” as more or fewer, and in a certain sense to treat the essence as well as the persons numerically. In the Holy Trinity, on the other hand, the Persons are always the same, and their number the same. Nor are the Persons of the Holy Trinity differentiated, like individual men, by relations of time and place, and the like; the differentiation between them is based upon a constant causal relation existing among the Three Persons, which does not affect the unity of the Nature: it does not express the Being, but the mode of Being[13]. The Father is the Cause; the Son and the Holy Spirit are differentiated from Him as being from the Cause, and again differentiated inter se as being immediately from the Cause, and immediately through that which is from the Cause. Further, while these reasons may be alleged for holding that the cases are not in such a sense parallel as to allow that the same conclusion as to modes of speech should be drawn in both, he urges that the use of the term “men” in the plural is, strictly speaking, erroneous. We should, in strictness, speak not of “this or that man,” but of “this or that hypostasis of man”—the “three men” should be described as “three hypostases” of the common οὐσία “man.” In the treatise addressed to Ablabius he goes over the same ground, clothing his arguments in a somewhat less philosophical dress; but he devotes more space to an examination of the meaning of the term θεός, with a view to showing that it is a term expressive of operation, and thereby of essence, not a term which may be considered as applicable to any one of the Divine Persons in any such peculiar sense that it may not equally be applied also to the other two[14]. His argument is partly based upon an etymology now discredited, but this does not affect the position he seeks to establish (a position which is also adopted in the treatise, De S. Trinitate), that names expressive of the Divine Nature, or of the Divine operation (by which alone that Nature is known to us) are employed, and ought to be employed, only in the singular. The unity and inseparability of all Divine operation, proceeding from the Father, advancing through the Son, and culminating in the Holy Spirit, yet setting forth one κίνησις of the Divine will, is the reason why the idea of plurality is not suffered to attach to these names[15], while the reason for refusing to allow, in regard to the three Divine Persons, the same laxity of language which we tolerate in regard to the case of the three “men,” is to be found in the fact that in the latter case no danger arises from the current abuse of language: no one thinks of “three human natures;” but on the other hand polytheism is a very real and serious danger, to which the parallel abuse of language involved in speaking of “three Gods” would infallibly expose us.

S. Gregory’s own doctrine, indeed, has seemed to some critics to be open to the charge of tritheism. But even if his doctrine were entirely expressed in the single illustration of which we have spoken, it does not seem that the charge would hold good, when we consider the light in which the illustration would present itself to him. The conception of the unity of human nature is with him a thing intensely vivid: it underlies much of his system, and he brings it prominently forward more than once in his more philosophical writings[16]. We cannot, in fairness, leave his realism out of account when we are estimating the force of his illustration: and therefore, while admitting that the illustration was one not unlikely to produce misconceptions of his teaching, we may fairly acquit him of any personal bias towards tritheism such as might appear to be involved in the unqualified adoption of the same illustration by a writer of our own time, or such as might have been attributed to theologians of the period of S. Gregory who adopted the illustration without the qualification of a realism as determined as his own[17]. But the illustration does not stand alone: we must not consider that it is the only one of those to be found in the treatise, De Diff. Essen. et Hypost., which he would have felt justified in employing. Even if the illustration of the rainbow, set forth in that treatise, was not actually his own (as Dorner, ascribing the treatise to him, considers it to have been), it was at all events (on the other theory of the authorship), included in the teaching he had received from his “master:” it would be present to his mind, although in his undisputed writings, where he is dealing with objections brought against the particular illustration from human relations, he naturally confines himself to the particular illustration from which an erroneous inference was being drawn. In our estimate of his teaching the one illustration must be allowed to some extent to qualify the effect produced by the other. And, further, we must remember that his argument from human relations is professedly only an illustration. It points to an analogy, to a resemblance, not to an identity of relations; so much he is careful in his reply to state. Even if it were true, he implies, that we are warranted in speaking, in the given case, of the three human persons as “three men,” it would not follow that we should be warranted thereby in speaking of the three Divine Persons as “three Gods.” For the human personalities stand contrasted with the Divine, at once as regards their being and as regards their operation. The various human πρόσωπα draw their being from many other πρόσωπα, one from one, another from another, not, as the Divine, from One, unchangeably the same: they operate, each in his own way, severally and independently, not, as the Divine, inseparably: they are contemplated each by himself, in his own limited sphere, κατ᾽ ἰδίαν περιγραφήν, not, as the Divine, in mutual essential connexion, differentiated one from the other only by a certain mutual relation. And from this it follows that the human πρόσωπα are capable of enumeration in a sense in which number cannot be considered applicable to the Divine Persons. Here we find S. Gregory’s teaching brought once more into harmony with his “master’s:” if he has been willing to carry the use of numerical terms rather further than S. Basil was prepared to do, he yet is content in the last resort to say that number is not in strictness applicable to the Divine ὑποστάσεις, in that they cannot be contemplated κατ᾽ ἰδίαν περιγραφήν, and therefore cannot be enumerated by way of addition. Still the distraction of the ὑποστάσεις remains; and if there is no other way (as he seems to have considered there was none), of making full acknowledgment of their distinct though inseparable existence than to speak of them as “three,” he holds that that use of numerical language is justifiable, so long as we do not transfer the idea of number from the ὑποστάσεις to the οὐσία, to that Nature of God which is Itself beyond our conception, and which we can only express by terms suggested to us by what we know of Its operation.

Such, in brief, is the teaching of S. Gregory on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as expressed in the treatises in which he developed and defended those positions in which S. Basil appeared to diverge from the older Nicene theologians. That the terminology of the subject gained clearness and definiteness from his exposition, in that he rendered it plain that the adoption of the Eastern phraseology was a thing perfectly consistent with the Faith confessed alike by East and West in varying terms, seems beyond doubt. It was to him, probably, rather than to S. Basil, that this work was due; for he cleared up the points which S. Basil’s illustration had left doubtful; yet in so doing he was using throughout the weapons which his “master” had placed in his hands, and arguing in favour of his “master’s” statements, in language, it may be, less guarded than S. Basil himself would have employed, but in accordance throughout with the principles which S. Basil had followed. Each bore his own part in the common work: to one, perhaps, is due the credit of greater originality; to the other it was given to carry on and to extend what his brother had begun: neither, we may well believe, would have desired to claim that the work which their joint teaching effected should be imputed to himself alone.

So far, we have especially had in view those minor treatises of S. Gregory which illustrate such variations from Athanasian modes of expression as are to be found in the writers of the “Neo-Nicene” school. These are perhaps his most characteristic works upon the subject. But the doctrine of the Trinity, as he held it, is further set forth and enforced in other treatises which are, from another point of view, much more important than those with which we have been dealing—in his Oratio Catechetica, and his more directly polemical treatises against Eunomius. In both these sections of his writings, when allowance is made for the difference of terminology already discussed, we are less struck by the divergencies from S. Athanasius’ presentment of the doctrine than by the substantial identity of S. Gregory’s reasoning with that of S. Athanasius, as the latter is displayed, for example, in the “Orations against the Arians.”

There are, of course, many points in which S. Gregory falls short of his great predecessor; but of these some may perhaps be accounted for by the different aspect of the Arian controversy as it presented itself to the two champions of the Faith. The later school of Arianism may indeed be regarded as a perfectly legitimate and rigidly logical development of the doctrines taught by Arius himself; but in some ways the task of S. Gregory was a different task from that of S. Athanasius, and was the less formidable of the two. His antagonist was, by his own greater definiteness of statement, placed at a disadvantage: the consequences which S. Athanasius had to extract from the Arian statements were by Eunomius and the Anomœans either openly asserted or tacitly admitted: and it was thus an easier matter for S. Gregory to show the real tendency of Anomœan doctrine than it had been for S. Athanasius to point out the real tendency of the earlier Arianism. Further, it may be said that by the time of S. Basil, still more by the time when S. Gregory succeeded to his brother’s place in the controversy, the victory over Arianism was assured. It was not possible for S. Athanasius, even had it been in his nature to do so, to treat the earlier Arianism with the same sort of contemptuous criticism with which Eunomius is frequently met by S. Gregory. For S. Gregory, on the other hand, it was not necessary to refrain from such criticism lest he should thereby detract from the force of his protest against error. The crisis in his day was not one which demanded the same sustained effort for which the contest called in the days of S. Athanasius. Now and then, certainly, S. Gregory also rises to a white heat of indignation against his adversary: but it is hardly too much to say that his work appears to lack just those qualities which seem, in the writings of S. Athanasius, to have been called forth by the author’s sense of the weight of the force opposed to him, and of the “life and death” character of the contest. S. Gregory does not under-estimate the momentous nature of the questions at issue: but when he wrote, he might feel that to those questions the answer of Christendom had been already given, that the conflict was already won, and that any attempt at developing the Arian doctrine on Anomœan lines was the adoption of an untenable position,—even of a position manifestly and evidently untenable: the doctrine had but to be stated in clear terms to be recognized as incompatible with Christianity, and, that fact once recognized, he had no more to do. Thus much of his treatises against Eunomius consists not of constructive argument in support of his own position, but of a detailed examination of Eunomius’ own statements, while a further portion of the contents of these books, by no means inconsiderable in amount, is devoted not so much to the defence of the Faith as to the refutation of certain misrepresentations of S. Basil’s arguments which had been set forth by Eunomius.

Even in the more distinctly constructive portion of these polemical writings, however, it may be said that S. Gregory does not show marked originality of thought either in his general argument, or in his mode of handling disputed texts. Within the limits of an introductory essay like the present, anything like detailed comparison on these points is of course impossible; but any one who will take the trouble to compare the discourses of S. Gregory against Eunomius with the “Orations” of S. Athanasius against the Arians,—the Athanasian writing, perhaps, most closely corresponding in character to these books of S. Gregory,—either as regards the specific passages of Scripture cited in support of the doctrine maintained, and the mode of interpreting them, or as to the methods of explanation applied to the texts alleged by the Arian writers in favour of their own opinions, can hardly fail to be struck by the number and the closeness of the resemblances which he will be able to trace between the earlier and the later representatives of the Nicene School. A somewhat similar relation to the Athanasian position, as regards the basis of belief, and (allowing for the difference of terminology) as regards the definition of doctrine, may be observed in the Oratio Catechetica.

Such originality, in fact, as S. Gregory may claim to possess (so far as his treatment of this subject is concerned) is rather the originality of the tactician than that of the strategist: he deals rather with his particular opponent, and keeps in view the particular point in discussion more than the general area over which the war extends. S. Athanasius, on the other hand (partly, no doubt, because he was dealing with a less fully developed form of error), seems to have more force left in reserve. He presents his arguments in a more concise form, and is sometimes content to suggest an inference where S. Gregory proceeds to draw out conclusions in detail, and where thereby the latter, while possibly strengthening his presentment of the truth as against his own particular adversary,—against the Anomœan or the polytheist on the one side, or against the Sabellian or the Judaizer on the other,—renders his argument, when considered per se as a defence of the orthodox position, frequently more diffuse and sometimes less forcible. Yet, even here, originality of a certain kind does belong to S. Gregory, and it seems only fair to him to say that in these treatises also he did good service in defence of the Faith touching the Holy Trinity. He shows that alike by way of formal statement of doctrine, as in the Oratio Catechetica, and by way of polemical argument, the forces at the command of the defenders of the Faith could be organized to meet varied forms of error, without abandoning, either for a more original theology like that or Marcellus of Ancyra, or for the compromise which the Homœan or Semi-Arian school were in danger of being led to accept, the weapons with which S. Athanasius had conquered at Nicæa.


  1. See Dorner, Doctrine of the Person of Christ, Div. I. vol. ii. p. 314 (English Trans.).
  2. It is to be noted further that the use of the terms “Persona” and πρόσωπον by those who avoided the phrase τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις no doubt assisted in the formation of this suspicion. At the same time the Nicene anathema favoured the sense of ὑπόστασις as equivalent to οὐσία, and so appeared to condemn the Eastern use.
  3. S. Athanasius, Tom. ad Antioch, 5.
  4. Ad Afr. Episc. §4. S. Athanasius, however, does not shrink from the phrase τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις in contradistinction to the μῖα οὐσία: see the treatise, In illud, ‘Omnia mihi tradita sunt.’ §6.
  5. S. Bas. Ep. 125 (being the confession of faith drawn up by S. Basil for the subscription of Eustathius).
  6. It appears on the whole more probable that the treatise is the work of S. Gregory; but it is found, in a slightly different shape, among the Letters of S. Basil. (Ep. 189 in the Benedictine Edition.)
  7. In what sense this language was charged with “novelty” is not very clear. But the point of the objection appears to lie in a refusal to recognize that terms expressive of the Divine Nature, whether they indicate attributes or operations of that Nature, may be predicated of each ὑπόστασις severally, as well as of the οὐσία, without attaching to the terms themselves that idea of plurality which, so far as they express attributes or operations of the οὐσία, must be excluded from them.
  8. S. Bas. Ep. 214, §4.
  9. The differentia here assigned to the Third Person is not, in S. Basil’s own view, a differentia at all: for he would no doubt have been ready to acknowledge that this attribute is common to all Three Persons. S. Gregory, as it will be seen, treats the question as to the differentiation of the Persons somewhat differently, and rests his answer on a basis theologically more scientific.
  10. S. Bas. Ep. 38 (Benedictine Ed.).
  11. De Spir. Sancto, §18.
  12. On S. Basil’s language on this subject, see Dorner, Doctrine of the Person of Christ, Div. 1. vol. ii. pp. 309–11. (Eng. Trans.)
  13. This statement strikes at the root of the theory held by Eunomius, as well as by the earlier Arians, that the ἀγεννησία of the Father constituted His Essence. S. Gregory treats His ἀγεννησία as that by which He is distinguished from the other Persons, as an attribute marking His hypostasis. This subject is treated more fully, with special reference to the Eunomian view, in the Ref. alt. libri Eunomii.
  14. S. Gregory would apparently extend this argument even to the operations expressed by the names of “Redeemer,” or “Comforter;” though he would admit that in regard of the mode by which these operations are applied to man, the names expressive of them are used in a special sense of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, yet he would argue that in neither case does the one Person act without the other two.
  15. See Dorner, ut sup., pp. 317–18.
  16. Especially in the treatise, De Animâ et Resurrectione, and in that De Conditione Hominis. A notable instance is to be found in the former (p. 242 A.).
  17. See Dorner, ut sup., p. 315, and p. 319, note 2.